Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Ontology of Physics (updated)

The question at issue here is, What sort of entities are fundamental in physics?  E.g., in the late nineteenth century through early twentieth centuries,

whether atoms were real objects or only mnemonic devices for coding chemical regularities.
-- Abraham Pais, Subtle is the Lord (1982), p. 80

The idea of atoms in some sense  goes back to Ancient Greece; and today, they are taken for granted.  So it is surprising to laymen, how long opposition to a Realist take on atoms lasted among some philosophers and physicists (e.g. Ernst Mach).  An opposing view, from a leading German chemist:

Ostwald’s ‘Energetik’, according to which molecules and atoms are but mathematical fictions, and energy, in its many forms, the prime physical reality.
-- ibid, p. 83

Good bluff Rutherford, by contrast, had sucked atoms with his mother’s milk, and claimed that he “could see the little buggers as plainly as a spoon”.

Oddly, the debate on this seemingly practical laboratory matter,  had elements more characteristic of political or theological controversy, in which neither side has a prayer of of convincing the other by rational argument:

The most remarkable fact about the nineteenth century debates on atoms and molecules   is the large extent to which chemists and physicists spoke at cross purposes, when they did not actually ignore each other.
-- ibid, p. 80

Since that time, a host of new physical building-blocks have been proposed, and in some cases observed: from the unexpected and rather unwelcome muon (I.I. Rabi: “Who ordered that?”), to the massless chargeless neutrino (rather like Bishop Berkeley’s “ghosts of departed quantities”), through quarks, gluons, gravitons & gravitinos, selectrons & electrinos, axions, preons, virtual photons, phonons … such as might make even Rutherford gag.  But several of these are now widely accepted -- not as mere bookkeeping mechanisms, but as entities with further properties to be discovered;  so that the smart money has been on Realism, so far.

Ernest Rutherford,  swallowing an atom  but straining at a quark

We shouldn’t be too hard on old Ostwald  for backing the wrong horse in the Atoms Affair.   Dissident voices today would declare  as epiphenomenal not only atoms, but even the elementary particles of which those are admittedly merely bundles:  demoted to excitation-states of superstrings;  or emerging from the combinatorial-automaton structure of the world. 
Additionally, his Energetik has enjoyed a bit of a revival in some quarters:

More recently, information (or, solemnly, “The Information” -- Wheeler's "It from Bit") has emerged among some as a skeleton-key to everything else in the physical world.

Thus, at the bottom of everything, behind and beyond the Maya of the particle zoo, lies:

Thales:  Water.
Oswald:  Energy.
John Wheeler:  Information.

Stewardess:  Coffee tea or mi-ilk?
The Milesian:   Just water, thanks.

Or, a more recherché candidate, from philosopher Hilary Putnam:

Nothing has more physical significance than spectral measure.

(That might strike the layman as rather a … spectral candidate for the role of firmest substrate of all.)
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The word “ontology” is not one you are likely to overhear at the bus-stop;  nor indeed does a physics-major typically run across it.   But the more we see physics as science (Wissenschaft) rather than a special kind of engineering (the “shut up and calculate” ethos of the years around WWII), the more we meet questions traditionally treated under that rubric -- and indeed, contemporaneously, even under that very name. 

My own position is that the issue of ontology is crucial to quantum mechanics.
-- Roger Penrose,  The Road to Reality (2004), p. 785

Let us now return to the ontology of the consistent-histories approach.  The theory operates with entities called coarse-grained histories.  … The ontological status of the insertion of such a projector set  is still not fully clear. …  A history from a maximally refined set seems to me to provide a strong candidate for what might be regarded as ontologially ‘real’.
-- Penrose,  The Road to Reality (2004), p. 788

Present-day quantum mechanics has no credible ontology … The imporance of having an ontologically coherent quantum mechanics cannot be over-estimated.
-- Penrose,  The Road to Reality (2004), p. 860, 865

Re the notion of macroscopic quantum superposition being unproblematic:

This is taking a ‘pragmatic’ stance  that does not really address the ontological issues.
-- Roger Penrose,  The Road to Reality (2004), p. 812

And, full-bore:

Many contemporary thinkers seem to have supposed that, in discarding its mechanist ontology, physics had discarded its ontology:  matter had been dematerialized … The very progress of physics itself  seemed to them to call for the renunciation of mechanism and materialism  in favour of the de-ontologised view of science presented by Mach.
-- John Watkins, Science and Skepticism (1984), p. 138

In philosophy proper, ontology is fundamental, being prior to anything else.   In its application to or rather analogue within  physics, by contrast, it historically comes behindhand, as a setting in order of what-all several centuries of reflection and experiment have come up with:  We may think of it as a kind of cast of characters, not fully drawn-up until the play has been written:  in the course of writing it, you find out you need a ladies-maid, and so eventually she is placed upon the prefatory page of Dramatis personae, that typographically precedes the play itself -- and as a nice afterthought, you name her Lisette.  Similarly, particle physics did not begin by being defined, a priori, as (back among the Greeks) the Science of Atoms, or (later) as the Science of the Proton, the Neutron, and the Electron, or (later still-- the Barock Age) as the Menagerie-management of the Particle-zoo (with a fixed given roster of inmates), nor as the Curating of the Wiggling of Strings.  There is a thematic continuity throughout all these stages, but the staffage keeps changing.
As for the role of this Ontology, or Cast of Characters, it is not (despite the spectral example of traditional metaphysics per se) just something to admire from afar, like Mount Rushmore, but rather, as Goedel said pragmatically re which axioms we should adopt for math and logic, they should themselves possess generative potential -- by their fruits ye shall know them.  Thus, hard-headedly:

Kepler’s theoretical ontology, unlike Gilbert’s, was not organically related to his laws;  even if it could be squared with the latter, which seems doubtful, it failed to make any contribution to the testable content of his system.
-- John Watkins, Science and Skepticism (1984), p. 197

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As remarked earlier, I may well go to my grave without ever grasping the concept of an observable, much less physical ontology in general.   Still, it is helpful towards organizing my thoughts, to have an online scribble-space, so that the matter is, so to speak, officially a topic, a project under way.   For now, this is just a whiteboard on which to stow some juicy quotes.  Your own juicy contributions are more than welcome.
For a more general surview of the ontology of the various sciences, click here.

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Physics may be defined as the art of saying things about stuff (or stuff about things -- predications concerning entities, for the fastidious).  But what are these entities, whereof we predicate?  In the first place -- observables.

P.A.M. Dirac, The Principles of Quantum Mechanics (1930; 4th edn. 1958), p. 116:

From our assumption that the energy is an observable, there are sufficient stationary states for an arbitrary state to be dependent on them.

For a layman, this is bemusing.  The assumption that it’s an observable?   Can you observe it, or can’t you?  -- Evidently there is much more to qualifying as  “an observable” than merely being … observable.
(Compare Einstein, in one of his Zen moments: "It is the theory that decides what we can observe.")

P.A.M. Dirac, The Principles of Quantum Mechanics (4th edn. 1958), p. 458 (re certain eigenstates):

Science contains many examples of theoretical concepts which are limits of things met with in practice  and are useful for the precise formulation of laws of nature, although they are not realizable experimentally, and this is just one more of them.

Emphasis added.  “Limits” in the mathematical sense.
Note that “not realizable experimentally” does not constitute much of a disability.  What, after all, is?  “Carthage lost the Punic Wars”; “I love you”; “E8 is a 248-dimensional rotation-space”:  no, almost nothing is.

Robert Lindsay & Henry Margenau, Foundations of Physics (1936), p.402:

Quantities such as position, energy, momentum, and the like, capable of measurement… will be called observables,  although it is not intended to imply that they are observable directly.

The caveat is troubling enough;  but now this:

In quantum mechanics, the state of a system is no longer defined by means of a number of variables having an immediate intuitive appeal … In fact, it is not defined in terms of observables at all;  it is simply a function in configuration space.

Carl Hempel, “Problems and Changes in the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning” (1950):
Green, soft, liquid, longer than  designate observable characteristics, while bivalent, radioactive, better electric conductor, and introvert do not.

This odd assertion, by a well-known philosopher of science, seems more psychological than scientific.  It is reminiscent of Locke’s distinction between simple and composite ideas.

Eugen Merzbacher, Quantum Mechanics (1961, 2nd edn. 1970), p. 153:
Following Dirac, we call observable any Hermitian operator which possesses a complete set of eigenfunctions.

This might sound opaque to some, but for a math guy it’s the clearest statement yet, by far.  Of course, what it amounts to physically, intuitively, is something else…

Gerald Holton, The scientific imagination (1978), p. 202:

The idea of making quantitative indicators of anything at all  fascinates some persons, and repels others as dangerous or absurd.  This difference is caused largely by thematically incompatible -- and therefore often unresolvable -- personal views concerning the ability of quantifiables to lead to … the deepest reality.

Note the silly dichotomy -- as though failing to lead to "the deepest reality" (a deeply suspect term) meant that they couldn't be "indicators of anything at all".


I had some fun above, playing with a rumpled old word like stuff, shoving it before the microphone of science.  Here a gifted popularizer  makes similar play  with pronouns:

[In its] Einsteinian reframing … is spacetime a something?
-- Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), p. 39

In that historical context, the question concerned the ontological status of (the novelty) ‘spacetime’, as opposed to the traditional notions of the independent entities, space, and time.
(More recently, spacetime has been demoted in some theories -- not returning to a Cartesian product of space and time, but being derived as an epiphenomenon of more fundamental items.  Thus, twistor theory, among others.)

If there is no aether to provide the standard of rest, what is the what  with respect to which this speed is to be interpreted?
-- Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), p. 45

If an individual electron is also a wave, what is it that is waving?
-- Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), p. 88

(Here the wordplay inheres not in the pronoun what, but in the verb.  He could more conventionally have written, “What is the medium for the wave?”, but the startling verbal formulation ‘makes it strange’, confronting us with something more fundamental.)
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (1988; 2nd edn. 1996) p. 75:

The fact that confinement prevents one from observing an isolated quark or gluon  might seem to make the whole notion of quarks and gluons as particles   somewhat metaphysical.  However, there is another property of the strong nuclear force, called asymptotic freedom.  The concept of these entities  was already well-defined, or not, as the case may be:  certainly well-defined as bookkeeping conventions, if nothing more.   Asymptotic freedom -- “at high energies, the strong force becomes much weaker, and the quarks and gluons behave almost like free particles” -- simply adds a further mode of observing their effects:  and in this case, their effects when they are relatively ineffectual -- quarks on holiday.

Failure to be observable in isolation certainly doesn't make a thing "metaphysical" (in the colloquial bad sense intended here).  You cannot observe a "brother" in isolation:  dissect him down to his last tissues, nothing will reveal his brotherhood but the historical context.  Nor, perhaps, can you observe Coulomb attraction in a single isolated particle -- it takes two to tangle.  (I might be wrong on this -- the photon cloud and all that.  But how does the cloud tell you whether you've got an attraction or a repulsion?)

Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (1992),  p. 181:

The positivist concentration on observables like particle positions and momenta  has stood in the way of a “realist” interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which the wave function is the representation of physical reality.

Wiki, "Quantum field theory" (excellent article, btw):

In quantum field theory, unlike in quantum mechanics, position is not an observable.

From the point of view of quantum field theory, particles are identical if and only if they are excitations of the same underlying quantum field.  Thus, the question ‘Why are all electrons identical?” arises from mistakenly regarding individual electrons as fundamental objects, when in fact it is only the electron field that is fundamental.

The global phase of the wave function  is arbitrary, and does not represent something physical.

Wiki, "Implicate and explicate order" (of interest only to those who are already devotees of guru-physicist David Bohm):

 Bohm’s paradigm is inherently antithetical to reductionism … and can be regarded as a form of ontological holism.

Wiki, “Introduction to Gauge Theory”:

The electric field and the magnetic field are observable, while the more fundamental electromagnetic potentials V and A  are not.


In this ontological context, it is far from clear how the phrase ‘more like’ is to be applied.  Comparison of historical theories gives no sense that their ontologies are approaching a limit:  in some fundamental ways, Einstein’s general relativity resembles Aristotle’s physics more than Newton’s.
-- Thomas Kuhn, in I. Lakatos & A. Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (1970), p. 265

Cf. too Dirac’s remarks (1951) that the aether concept was ripe for resuscitation.

[Update 8 May 2012] And now this:
The philosophical status of the wavefunction — the entity that determines the probability of different outcomes of measurements on quantum-mechanical particles — would seem to be an unlikely subject for emotional debate. Yet online discussion of a paper claiming to show mathematically that the wavefunction is real has ranged from ardently star-struck to downright vitriolic since the article was first released as a preprint in November 2011.
The paper, thought by some to be one of the most important in quantum foundations in decades, was finally published last week in Nature Physics
They say that the mathematics leaves no doubt that the wavefunction is not just a statistical tool, but rather, a real, objective state of a quantum system.

I told you so...

Physicists reify space-time. They elevate it from a four-dimensional diagram used to record their experience into the kind of “real essence” that Bohr warned us not to seek.
-- David Mermin (March 2014), at:


Not the same as the question of the building-blocks (ontological bricks) of physics, but related to it, is that of the Boundaries of Disciplines:  between physics and neighboring fields (chemistry, mathematics, …) and within physics itself (mechanics, astronomy, electromagnetism, condensed-matter, nucleonics, quantum theory, …).   In one sense, the question is idle -- you are working on whatever project you are working on, with methods appropriate thereto, however outsiders might classify them.  But it also has practical consequences, e.g. in the writing of textbooks.  As:

The traditional teaching of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics  as distinct subjects,  has often left students with their knowledge  compartmentalized, and has left them ill-prepared to accept newer ideas such as spin temperature or negative temperature  as legitimate and natural.
-- F. Reif, Fundamentals of statistical and thermal physics (1965), p. viii

That, from the textbook we used in stat mech at Harvard -- in the physics department, though previously I had only met notions of enthalpy, temperature, free energy, and entropy, in a chemistry course.

Similarly, Lindsay & Margenau remark, in their historical overview Foundations of Physics (1936), that they are moving away from treating optics and electrodynamics as distinct disciplines, “the former being, since Mawell’s time, really a branch of the latter.”


God’s-truth vs Hocus-pocus:

It is tempting to dismiss these quantum waves  as mathematical contrivances … but in the laboratory these “probability waves” can be manipulated with mirrors …
-- George Johnson,  A Shortcut Through Time (2003), p. 38



  1. “But—let me tell you my cat joke. It's very short and simple. A hostess is giving a dinner party and she's got a lovely five-pound T-bone steak sitting on the sideboard in the kitchen waiting to be cooked while she chats with the guests in the living room—has a few drinks and whatnot. But then she excuses herself to go into the kitchen to cook the steak—and it's gone. And there's the family cat, in the corner, sedately washing it's face."

    "The cat got the steak," Barney said.

    "Did it? The guests are called in; they argue about it. The steak is gone, all five pounds of it; there sits the cat, looking well-fed and cheerful. "Weigh the cat," someone says. They've had a few drinks; it looks like a good idea. So they go into the bathroom and weigh the cat on the scales. It reads exactly five pounds. They all perceive this reading and a guest says, "okay, that's it. There's the steak." They're satisfied that they know what happened, now; they've got empirical proof. Then a qualm comes to one of them and he says, puzzled, "But where's the cat?”
    ― Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

    1. Obviously, it was a Schroedinger cat. Or perhaps a Cheshire ...

  2. Schroedinger or Cheshire? Indeterminate!
    (Never matter.)